That was the year California legalized medical marijuana. At first, nothing much changed in Humboldt. “Initially, the cops were cracking down,” remembers one local, Mikal Jakubal. “They would come in and say, ‘You’ve got twenty plants, I think you only need two or three of these. Cut ’em down.’ ” California hadn’t done much to regulate the market or to delineate how much one could grow, and amid a confounding patchwork of local ordinances a quiet accord developed between growers and town cops: Only if you grew much more than their neighbors were you likely to be troubled by police.
Part of the price of building a utopia in America is that eventually you must make some reckoning with capitalism. Soon, each neighbor seemed to be pushing beyond the standard by 5 percent, maybe 10. People noticed what was happening, and the hippies had long, dreamy-angsty conversations about whether this was all too corporate, too big (“ ‘Too big’ is always one more plant than you’re growing,” says one longtime grower), but it wasn’t really a hippie game anymore. Now there were out-of-state license plates and landholders who bulldozed their property, crammed it full of cannabis plants, slept in a trailer all summer, and then left after the harvest. (Humboldt’s marijuana economy generates more than $400 million each year.) Dealers from the East were coming through, mumbling to people at local grocery stores that they wanted a connection. A kind of crass instinct had infiltrated the dispensaries, too. “Gamblers, pornographers, illegal-drug dealers,” says Steve DeAngelo, the founder of the Oakland dispensary Harborside Health Center, remembering his rivals. “One guy had $600,000 in the back of his car. Another guy, in his basement there was a gold throne.”
Medicinal marijuana was also altering the basic chemistry of the drug. When pot was illegal, many growers worked to cultivate the drug’s basic intoxicant, THC, to produce a more potent high. But many new, medicinal customers wanted a softer sensation or a guard against panic attacks. So the growers reengineered the plant to cushion the drug’s effects. (DeAngelo’s dispensary offers some 250 strains, one of which was developed to help mitigate the symptoms of epilepsy.) An artisanal middle road seemed to open between working with drug dealers and enduring the ugliness of pot’s industrialization. There were meetings held with representatives from the county government to try to figure out how to brand Humboldt as cannabis country. These have now slowed down, because a group of federal prosecutors have targeted the dispensaries vigorously, but still there is bold talk everywhere about becoming what Napa Valley is to wine.
All of which has made Humboldt County something close to the opposite of what its post-sixties settlers imagined it might be: a model for how drug prohibition in America might evolve in the 21st century. Throughout the country, the once-clear lines of drug law have been steadily blurring into a messy crosshatch of locale and jurisdiction. Slowly, coaxed along on one side by the libertarian streak in the electorate and on the other by the disinterest of cops, we have begun to create many more places that look something like Humboldt County—a bustling economy where many people are growing more than their town allows, everyone is growing more than the Feds allow, and the industry is operating not on the familiar outlaw territory but within a new system whose contours they do not know and can’t define. This year’s harvest happened about six weeks ago, and Jakubal told me about what he called the “rip-off moon,” the full moon in September so bright that cannabis plots are vulnerable to thieves and poachers. Large growers have little recourse to the police. Instead, cameras and guards abound; one of Jakubal’s neighbors keeps a machete. And so: this bizarre lagoon. You go to branding meetings with county representatives. You speculate about whether legalization elsewhere will drive the prices down or create new customers. Your friends are arrested for driving the crop to market. At home, you keep a machete.
Three weeks ago, voters in Colorado and Washington chose to legalize marijuana for recreational use in both states—to make the drug legal to sell, legal to smoke, and legal to carry, so long as you are over 21 and you don’t drive while high. No doctor’s note is necessary. Marijuana will no longer be mostly regulated by the police, as if it were cocaine, but instead by the state liquor board (in Washington) and the Department of Revenue (in Colorado), as if it were whiskey. Colorado’s law has an extra provision that permits anyone to grow up to six marijuana plants at home and give away an ounce to friends.